Beyond Gender: Imago Dei

We’ve come a long way.

Bruce Jenner the Gold medal Olympian and Wheaties All American hero,is transitioning from male to female. In an interview with Diane Sawyer and with a provocative Vanity Fair cover by Annie Leibovitz, Jenner is bringing her story to a national and international audience. In “Call me Caitlyn”, Jenner tells the story of never being comfortable with being a man and suppressing her female self.

The fact that Jenner has chosen to go public and has found a sympathetic audience, is a sign of how far we’ve come as a nation. Yes, prejudice and oppression is a reality for many who live outside traditional norms. Yet, Vanity Fair is capitalizing on the gradual and growing awareness that gender roles and sexuality are much broader than many had previously thought.

This past week I attended a presentation by the theologian Megan DeFranza. She spoke on her new book: ‘Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God’. Much of what I heard was new, provocative and compelling.

In her book Dr. DeFranza speaks of a category called ‘intersex’, people born both female and male. On a continuum some are born with a variety of female and male physiological characteristics, some with ovaries and testes. In a culture that classifies to understand, what do we do with people who transcend our categories?

Too often those who fit outside our parameters are judged, marginalized and actively oppressed. My Christian tradition has too often demanded rigid conformity toward traditional gender roles and sexual expression. In the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions we have narrow parameters of who and what is acceptable related to gender and sexual identity. To confound such a tendency, the question must be asked, what do we do with people who transcend such boundaries?

Dr. DeFranza points to examples since ancient times of tribal communities who have honored those who transcend categories of gender and sexuality. Some became shaman’s and healers precisely because of their unique qualities and perspective.

Dr. DeFranza as a devout believer,also offers hope for inclusion and healing within our Christian tradition. She references Genesis chapter one, ‘In the Beginning God created the heavens and earth…Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created the human in his image, in the image of God he created the human, male and female he created them. And God said, it is good.’

imago dei

God transcends gender, God is plural both male and female. God is ‘intersex’ and if it is true, that we are each made in God’s image (imago Dei), then each one of us has inherent worth. This is true wherever we land on the gender/sexual continuum. If we are more male or female that is good. If we are attracted to one gender over another, that is good. If we are both male and female, that is good.

We’ve come a long way but of course, we still have a long way to go. For those of us who grew up in the majority culture as heterosexuals with traditional gender roles, this in new territory.

Yet whatever our gender and sexual identity may be, we have much to learn from one another. May we approach this journey with humility, openness, respect and good humor. And, let us never forget, that we are each created in God’s image, full of beauty and worth.

Workplace Discrimination: Not Good Enough for Jesus?

On July 4th I saw this headline in The Boston Globe: ‘Religious exemption to hiring rule urged.’ The article reported on 14 religious leaders (primarily Christian) who sent a letter to the White House requesting a religious exemption to a planned executive order by President Obama, barring federal contractors from discriminating in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.

President Obama’s executive order is in response to failed efforts to get through Congress the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA would have made it illegal under federal law to discriminate in the workplace – not just for contractors.

The letter requesting a religious exemption, was signed by nationally prominent evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders including D. Michael Lindsay president of Gordon College in Wenham, MA. I note President Lindsay’s name because Gordon College is an influential voice in the community I call home. I happen to be a pastor to some of Gordon’s graduates.

The letter reads in part: “Without a robust religious exemption…this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom.”

I have many questions for the signers of this letter: What common good are they speaking of? Is it in the interest of the common good to discriminate in the workplace? Is it in the interest of the common good when students, staff and faculty are forced to be closeted in fear of being fired or marginalized? Is it in the interest of the common good to perpetuate a theology that teaches that some aren’t good enough for Jesus?

I am offended by the use of noble terms like the common good, unity and religious freedom to impose discrimination due to sexual orientation. Not so long ago religious leaders coopted noble words and scripture to perpetuate discrimination towards people of color, women, minorities.

As I was working on a draft of this article a gay couple at the church I serve stopped by my office. They told me that one of them must remain closeted in their workplace lest their employer who is religiously conservative learn that they are gay. They can’t go to holiday parties as a couple, they can’t disclose who they fully are out of fear of being fired.

I say to President Lindsay: ‘Adding your signature as a representative of Gordon College does not promote the common good, unity or religious freedom. Rather it forces good people to deny who they are and live in fear.’

I urge each of the signatories to reconsider and rescind their signature. I ask this in the name of Jesus who in Luke 14: 15 – 24 envisions the Kingdom of God as a great banquet table where all the marginalized, oppressed and forgotten people have an honored seat at God’s table. I ask this for the sake of the common good.